The Belton Estate, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter IX

Captain Aylmer’s Promise to His Aunt

What had Captain Aylmer meant by telling her that they might be the dearest friends by saying so much as that, and then saying no more? Of course Clara asked herself that question as soon as she was alone in her bedroom, after leaving Captain Aylmer below. And she made two answers to herself two answers which were altogether distinct and contradictory one of the other. At first she decided that he had said so much and no more because he was deceitful because it suited his vanity to raise hopes which he had no intention of fulfilling because he was fond of saying soft things which were intended to have no meaning. This was her first answer to herself. But in her second she accused herself as much as before she had accused him. She had been cold to him, unfriendly, and harsh. As her aunt had told her, she spoke sharp words to him, and repulsed the kindness which he offered her. What right had she to expect from him a declaration of love when she was studious to stop him at every avenue by which he might approach it? A little management on her side would, she almost knew, make things right. But then the idea of any such management distressed her nay, more, disgusted her. The management, if any were necessary, must come from him. And it was manifest enough that if he had any strong wishes in this matter he was not a good manager. Her cousin, Will Belton, knew how to manage much better.

On the next morning, however, all her thoughts respecting Captain Aylmer were dissipated by tidings which Martha brought to her bedside. Her aunt was ill. Martha was afraid that her mistress was very ill. She did not dare to send specially for the doctor on her own responsibility, as Mrs Winterfield had strong and peculiar feelings about doctors’ visits, and had on this very morning declined to be so visited. On the next day the doctor would come in the usual course of things, for she had submitted for some years back to such periodical visitings; but she had desired that nothing might be done out of the common way. Martha, however, declared that if she were alone with her mistress the doctor would be sent for; and she now petitioned for aid from Clara. Clara was, of course, by her aunt’s bedside in a few minutes, and in a few minutes more the doctor from the other side of the way was there also.

It was ten o’clock before Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz met at breakfast, and they had before that been together in Mrs Winterfield’s room. The doctor had told Captain Aylmer that his aunt was very ill very ill, dangerously ill. She had been wrong to go into such a place as the cold, unaired Town-hall, and that, too, in the month of November; and the fatigue had also been too much for her. Mrs Winterfield, too, had admitted to Clara that she know herself to be very ill. ‘I felt it coming on me last night,’ she said, ‘when I was talking to you; and I felt it still more strongly when I left you after tea. I have lived long enough. God’s will be done.’ At that moment, when she said she had lived long enough, she forgot her intention with reference to her will. But she remembered it before Clara had left the room. ‘Tell Frederic’, she said, ‘to send at once for Mr Palmer.’ Now Clara knew that Mr Palmer was the attorney, and resolved that she would give no such message to Captain Aylmer. But Mrs Winterfield sent for her nephew, who had just left her, and herself gave her orders to him. In the course of the morning there came tidings from the attorney’s office that Mr Palmer was away from Perivale, that he would be back on the morrow, and that he would of course wait on Mrs Winterfield immediately on his return.

Captain Aylmer and Miss Amedroz discussed nothing but their aunt’s state of health that morning over the breakfast-table. Of course, under such circumstances in the house, there was no further immediate reference made to that offer of dearest friendship. It was clear to them both that the doctor did not expect that Mrs Winterfield would again leave her bed; and it was clear to Clara also that her aunt was of the same opinion.

‘I shall hardly be able to go home now,’ she said.

‘It will be kind of you if you can remain.’

‘And you?’

‘I shall remain over the Sunday. If by that time she is at all better, I will run up to town and come down again before the end of the week. I know you don’t believe it, but a man really has some things which he must do.’

‘I don’t disbelieve you, Captain Aylmer.’

‘But you must write to me daily if I do go.’

To this Clara made no objection and she must write also to some one else. She must let her cousin know how little chance there was that she would be at home at Christmas, explaining to him at the same time that his visit to her father would on that account be all the more welcome.

‘Are you going to her now?’ he asked, as Clara got up immediately after breakfast. ‘I shall be in the house all the morning, and if you want me you will of course send for me.’

‘She may perhaps like to see you.’

‘I will come up every now and again. I would remain there altogether, only I should be in the way.’ Then he got a newspaper and made himself comfortable over the fire, while she went up to her weary task in her aunt’s room.

Neither on that day nor on the next did the lawyer come, and on the following morning all earthly troubles were over with Mrs Winterfield. It was early on the Sunday morning that she died, and late on the Saturday evening Mr Palmer had sent up to say that he had been detained at Taunton, but that he would wait on Mrs Winterfield early on the Monday morning. On the Friday the poor lady had said much on the subject, but had been comforted by an assurance from her nephew that the arrangement should be carried out exactly as she wished it, whether the codicil was or was not added to the will. To Clara she said nothing more on the subject, nor at such a time did Captain Aylmer feel that he could offer her any assurance on the matter. But Clara knew that the will was not altered; and though at the time she was not thinking much about money, she had, nevertheless, very clearly made up her own mind as to her own conduct. Nothing should induce her to take a present of fifteen hundred pounds or, indeed, of as many pence from Captain Aylmer. During those hours of sickness in the house they had been much thrown together, and no one could have been kinder or more gentle to her than he had been. He had come to call her Clara, as people will do when joined together in such duties, and had been very pleasant as well as affectionate in his manner with her. It had seemed to her that he also wished to take upon himself the cares and love of an adopted brother. But as an adopted brother she would have nothing to do with him. The two men whom she liked best in the world would assume each the wrong place; and between them both she felt that she would be left friendless.

On the Saturday afternoon they had both surmised how it was going to be with Mrs Winterfield, and Captain Aylmer had told Mr Palmer that he feared his coming on the Monday would be useless. He explained also what was required, and declared that he would be at once ready to make good the deficiency in the will Mr Palmer seemed to think that this would be better even than the making of a codicil in the last moments of the lady’s life; and, therefore, he and Captain Aylmer were at rest on that subject.

During the greater part of the Saturday night both Clara and Captain Aylmer remained with their aunt; and once when the morning was almost there, and the last hour was near at hand, she had said a word or two which both of them had understood, in which she implored her darling Frederic to take a brother’s care of Clara Amedroz. Even in that moment Clara had repudiated the legacy, feeling sure in her heart that Frederic Aylmer was aware what was the nature of the care which he ought to owe, if he would consent to owe any care to her. He promised his aunt that he would do as she desired him, and it was impossible that Clara should then, aloud, repudiate the compact. But she said nothing, merely allowing her hand to rest with his beneath the thin, dry hand of the dying woman. To her aunt, however, when for a moment they were alone together, she showed all possible affection, with thanks and tears, and warm kisses, and prayers for forgiveness as to all those matters in which she had offended. ‘My pretty one my dear,’ said the old woman, raising her hand on to the head of the crouching girl, who was hiding her moist eyes on the bed. Never during her life had her aunt appeared to her in so loving a mood as now, when she was leaving it. Then, with some eager impassioned words, in which she pronounced her ideas of what should be the religious duties of a woman, Mrs Winterfield bade farewell to her niece. After that, she had a longer interview with her nephew, and then it seemed that all worldly cares were over with her.

The Sunday was passed in all that blackness of funeral grief which is absolutely necessary on such occasions. It cannot be said that either Clara or Captain Aylmer were stricken with any of that agony of woe which is produced on us by the death of those whom we have loved so well that we cannot bring ourselves to submit to part with them. They were both truly sorry for their aunt, in the common parlance of the world; but their sorrow was of that modified sort which does not numb the heart and make the surviving sufferer feel that there never can be a remedy. Nevertheless, it demanded sad countenances, few words, and those spoken hardly above a whisper; an absence of all amusement and almost of all employment, and a full surrender to the trappings of woe. They two were living together without other companion in the big house sitting down together to dinner and to tea; but on this day hardly a dozen words were spoken between them, and those dozen were spoken with no purport. On the Monday Captain Aylmer gave orders for the funeral, and then went away to London, undertaking to be back on the day before the last ceremony. Clara was rather glad that he should be gone, though she feared the solitude of the big house. She was glad that he should be gone, as she found it impossible to talk to him with ease to herself. She knew that he was about to assume some position as protector or quasi guardian over her in conformity with her aunt’s express wish, and she was quite resolved that she would submit to no such guardianship from his hands. That being so, the shorter period there might be for any such discussion the better.

The funeral was to take place on the Saturday, and during the four days that intervened she received two visits from Mr Possitt. Mr Possitt was very discreet in what he said, and Clara was angry with herself for not allowing his words to have any avail with her. She told herself that they were commonplace; but she told herself, also, after his first visit, that she had no right to expect anything else but commonplace words. How often are men found who can speak words on such occasions that are not commonplaces that really stir the soul, and bring true comfort to the listener? The humble listener may receive comfort even from commonplace words; but Clara was not humble, and rebuked herself for her own pride. On the second occasion of his coming she did endeavour to receive him with a meek heart, and to accept what he said with an obedient spirit. But the struggle within her bosom was hard, and when he bade her to kneel and pray with him, she doubted for a moment between rebellion and hypocrisy. But she had determined to be meek, and so hypocrisy carried the hour.

What would a clergyman say on such an occasion if the object of his solicitude were to decline the offer, remarking that prayer at that moment did not seem to be opportune; and that, moreover, he, the person thus invited, would like, first of all, to know what was to be the special object of the proposed prayer, if he found that he could, at the spur of the moment, bring himself at all into a fitting mood for the task? Of him who would decline, without argument, the clergyman would opine that he was simply a reprobate. Of him who would propose to accompany an hypothetical acceptance with certain stipulations, he would say to himself that he was a stiff-necked wrestler against grace, whose condition was worse than that of the reprobate. Men and women, conscious that they will be thus judged, submit to the hypocrisy, and go down upon their knees unprepared, making no effort, doing nothing while they are there, allowing their consciences to be eased if they can only feel themselves numbed into some ceremonial awe by the occasion. So it was with Clara, when Mr Possitt, with easy piety, went through the formula of his devotion, hardly ever having realized to himself the fact that of all works in which man can engage himself, that of prayer is the most difficult.

‘It is a sad loss to me,’ said Mr Possitt, as he sat for half an hour with Clara, after she had thus submitted herself. Mr Possitt was a weakly, pale-faced little man, who worked so hard in the parish that on every day, Sundays included, he went to bed as tired in all his bones as a day labourer from the fields ‘a very great loss. There are not many now who understand what a clergyman has to go through, as our dear friend did.’ If he was mindful of his two glasses of port wine on Sundays, who could blame him?

‘She was a very kind woman, Mr Possitt.’

‘Yes, indeed and so thoughtful! That she will have an exceeding great reward, who can doubt? Since I knew her she always lived as a saint upon earth. I suppose there’s nothing known as to who will live in this house, Miss Amedroz?’

‘Nothing I should think.’

‘Captain Aylmer won’t keep it in his own hands?’

‘I cannot tell in the least; but as he is obliged to live in London because of Parliament, and goes to Yorkshire always in the autumn, he can hardly want it.

‘I suppose not. But it will be a sad loss a sad loss to have this house empty. Ah I shall never forget her kindness to me. Do you know, Miss Amedroz,’ and as he told his little secret he became beautifully confidential ‘do you know, she always used to send me ten guineas at Christmas to help me along. She understood, as well as any one, how hard it is for a gentleman to live on seventy pounds a year. You will not wonder that I should feel that I’ve had a loss.’ It is hard for a gentleman to live upon seventy pounds a year; and it is very hard, too, for a lady to live upon nothing a year, which lot in life fate seemed to have in store for Miss Amedroz.

On the Friday evening Captain Aylmer came back, and Clara was in truth glad to see him. Her aunt’s death had been now far enough back to admit of her telling Martha that she would not dine till Captain Aylmer had come, and to allow her to think somewhat of his comfort. People must eat and drink even when the grim monarch is in the house; and it is a relief when they first dare to do so with some attention to the comforts which are ordinarily so important to them. For themselves alone women seldom care to exercise much trouble in this direction; but the presence of a man at once excuses and renders necessary the ceremony of a dinner. So Clara prepared for the arrival, and greeted the corner with some returning pleasantness of manner. And he, too, was pleasant with her, telling her of his plans, and speaking to her as though she were one of those whom it was natural that he should endeavour to interest in his future welfare.

‘When I come back tomorrow,’ he said, ‘the will must be opened and read. It had better be done here.’ They were sitting over the fire in the dining-room, after dinner, and Clara knew that the coming back to which he alluded was his return from the funeral. But she made no answer to this, as she wished to say nothing about her aunt’s will. ‘And after that,’ he continued, ‘you had better let me take you out.’

‘I am very well,’ she said. ‘I do not want any special taking out.’

‘But you have been confined to the house a whole week.’

‘Women are accustomed to that, and do not feel it as you would. However, I will walk with you if you’ll take me.’

‘Of course I’ll take you. And then we must settle our future plans. Have you fixed upon any day yet for returning? Of course, the longer you stay, the kinder you will be.’

‘I can do no good to any one by staying.’

‘You do good to me but I suppose I’m nobody. I wish I could tell what to do about this house. Dear, good old woman! I know she would have wished that I should keep it in my own hands, with some idea of living here at some future time but of course I shall never live here.’

‘Why not?’

‘Would you like it yourself?’

‘I am not Member of Parliament for Perivale, and should not be the leading person in the town. You would be a sort of king here; and then, some day, you will have your mother’s property as well as your aunt’s; and you would be near to your own tenants.’

‘But that does not answer my question. Could you bring yourself to live here even if it were your own?’

‘Why not?’

‘Because it is so deadly dull because it has no attraction whatever because of all lives it is the one you would like the least. No one should live in a provincial town but they who make their money by doing so.’

‘And what are the wives and daughters of such people to do and especially their widows? I have no doubt I could live here very happily if I had anybody near me that I liked. I should not wish to have to depend altogether on Mr Possitt for society.’

‘And you would find him about the best.’

‘Mr Possitt has been with me twice whilst you were away, and he, too, asked what you meant to do about the house.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘What could I say? Of course I said I did not know. I suppose he was meditating whether you would live here and ask him to dinner on Sundays!’

‘Mr Possitt is a very good sort of man,’ said the captain, gravely for Captain Aylmer, in the carrying out of his principles, always spoke seriously of everything connected with the Church in Perivale.

‘And quite worthy to be asked to dinner on Sundays,’ said Clara. ‘But I did not give him any hope. How could I? Of course I knew that you would not live here, though I did not tell him so.’

‘No; I don’t suppose I shall. But I see very plainly that you think I ought to do so.’

‘I’ve the old-fashioned idea as to a man’s living near to his own property; that is all. No doubt it was good for other people in Perivale, besides Mr Possitt, that my dear aunt lived here; and if the house is shut up, or let to some stranger, they will feel her loss the more. But I don’t know that you are bound to sacrifice yourself to them.’

‘If I were to marry,’ said Captain Aylmer, very slowly and in a low voice, ‘of course I should have to think of my wife’s wishes.’

‘But if your wife, when she accepted you, knew that you were living here, she would hardly take upon herself to demand that you should give up your residence.’

‘She might find it very dull.’

‘She would make her own calculations as to that before she accepted you.’

‘No doubt but I can’t fancy any woman taking a man who was tied by his leg to Perivale. What do people do who live in Perivale?’

‘Earn their bread.’

‘Yes that’s just what I said. But I shouldn’t earn mine here.’

‘I have the feeling I spoke of very strongly about papa’s place,’ said Clara, changing the conversation suddenly. ‘I very often think of the future fate of Belton Castle when papa shall have gone. My cousin has got his house at Plaistow, and I don’t suppose he’d live there.’

‘And where will you go?’ he asked.

As soon as she had spoken, Clara regretted her own imprudence in having ventured to speak upon her own affairs. She had been well pleased to hear him talk of his plans, and had been quite resolved not to talk of her own. But now, by her own speech, she had sot him to make inquiries as to her future life. She did not at first answer the question; but he repeated it. ‘And where will you live yourself?’

‘I hope I may not have to think of that for some time to come yet.’

‘It is impossible to help thinking of such things.’

‘I can assure you that I haven’t thought about it; but I suppose I shall endeavour to to I don’t know what I shall endeavour to do.’

‘Will you come and live at Perivale?’

‘Why here more than anywhere else?

‘In this house I mean.’

‘That would suit me admirably would it not? I’m afraid Mr Possitt would not find me a good neighbour. To tell the truth, I think that any lady who lives here alone ought to be older than I am. The Penvalians would not show to a young woman that sort of respect which they have always felt for this house.’

‘I didn’t mean alone,’ said Captain Aylmer.

Then Clara got up and made some excuse for leaving him, and there was nothing more said between them nothing, at least, of moment, on that evening. She had become uneasy when he asked her whether she would like to live in his house at Perivale. But afterwards, when he suggested that she was to have some companion with her there, she felt herself compelled to put an end to the conversation. And yet she knew that this was always the way, both with him and with herself. He would say things which would seem to promise that in another minute he would be at her feet, and then he would go no farther. And she, when she heard those words though in truth size would have had him at her feet if she could would draw away, and recede, and forbid him as it were to go on. But Clara continued to make her comparisons, and knew well that her cousin Will would have gone on in spite of any such forbiddings.

On that night, however, when she was alone, she could console herself with thinking how right she had been. In that front bedroom, the door of which was opposite to her own, with closed shutters, in the terrible solemnity of lifeless humanity, was still lying the body of her aunt! What would she have thought of herself if at such a moment she could have listened to words of love, and promised herself as a wife while such an inmate was in the house? She little knew that he, within that same room, had pledged himself, to her who was now lying there waiting for her last removal had pledged himself, just seven days since, to make the offer which, when he was talking to her, she was always half hoping and half fearing!

He could have meant nothing else when he told her that he had not intended to suggest that she should live there alone in that great house at Perivale. She could not hinder herself from thinking of this, unfit as was the present moment for any such thoughts. How was it possible that she should not speculate on the subject, let her resolutions against any such speculation be ever so strong? She had confessed to herself that she loved the man, and what else could she wish but that he also should love her? But there came upon her some faint suspicion some glimpse of what was almost a dream that he might possibly in this matter be guided rather by duty than by love. It might be that he would feel himself constrained to offer his hand to her constrained by the peculiarity of his position towards her. If so should she discover that such were his motives there would be no doubt as to the nature of her answer.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43